Friday, January 16, 2015

TARGETS WORTH WATCHING IN ‘AMERICAN SNIPER’

By Dominique Paul Noth

Bradley Cooper in "American Sniper."
In discussing “Unbroken,” I chided director Angelina Jolie that, of all the people she’d worked with, she would be better emulating Clint Eastwood. He has shown a capacity under his cantankerous personality to explore the flaws in a hero, let the story unfold by trusting actors and conveying brutality without artificial hype.

I had not seen “American Sniper” when I wrote that, so I was taking a chance with what is now a clear contender for awards honors. Today I admit Eastwood -- though not as much as Jolie -- did push too hard on the technical cinematic effects and engaged in some story omissions. But largely as director he proved my case with a much better movie than hers.

“American Sniper” is worth watching and thinking about, reflecting in familiar military adventure form our controversial war culture that many question. But Eastwood questions it, too, exploring how the cost of war to patriotic Americans is the horror visited on what we think of as the good guys. In film, protagonists must avoid the one-dimensional caricatures of endurance and noble dedication, and the jingoism of the religion and society they are defending, and Eastwood did, opening our minds with his ambivalence while pounding our sensory nerves.

Leaning on Bradley Cooper as Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, he has allowed a fascinating mixture of ignorance and warfare accomplishment, of acts regarded as bravery and medal-earning that on close examination turn into something far less laudable. And again he trusts the look in the eyes of the actor even more than the manipulations of the camera, though not as much as he should have.

As Kyle, Cooper shows a devout Texas macho man cheated on by his girl friend and inspired by his upbringing and sense of protecting us all from terrorists to head into war mode with extreme self-confidence in his family values.  He endures physical training and embraces psychological indoctrination by the US military – and Eastwood is not shy to let the officers parrot the messaging and manners knowing full well that historical events have since proved their patter excessive and unreliable.

But in this environment blindly endorsed by Kyle and most Americans  – 9/11 and its wake --  and during  four tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq (the film reminds us this is way too much for any human to endure while showing how few survive, which makes Kyle stand out even more), he proves the best of the best in calm sniping to protect his troops and anticipate the enemy, along with a devotion to protecting the weaker and a  steadfast embrace of the warrior myth that God and nation require of him, he fervently believes,  to kill to protect the American style of living. “I’m doing all for you, baby,” he tells his disbelieving wife.

It is largely a true story about Kyle, credited -- if that is the word -- with 168 battlefield kills, touted as a hero by the Pentagon. Viewers embrace the outlines of his heroism while also being forced by Eastwood and Cooper to confront how deeply in denial he has become, since we see in his remoteness and mental calculations how internally wounded the process has left him and his fellow soldiers.

The film omits elements of braggadocio and disputes involving Kyle after he left the military and leaves to hints and final titles his death on a gun range while trying to help a fellow troubled veteran. But it doesn’t duck the moral complications of his self-delusion.

This is far from a perfect film, but at least Eastwood is willing to raise some of the right questions.  This is what is making him a creative commercial film-maker since he is willing to look under the surface – maybe not far enough for some, but he is looking. 

Eastwood,  as he demonstrated at  the 2012 Republican convention where he endlessly talked emptily to an empty chair, still personally  reflects a school of tired ideology that has become as disturbing to me as the Wahhabism schools in Saudi Arabia that mislead Muslim students about the Koran.

It is rather telling about the American psyche that “American Sniper” is a big screen big box office attraction while the excellent documentary, “The Kill Team,” must rely on TV and Internet exposure to more accurately explain how this Mideast war turned nice American boys into brutal murderers.   Same lesson but far more truth in the documentary.  But far bigger audience for Eastwood, who grew to fame in spaghetti westerns and Dirty Harry movies representing the lone gunman killing for justice.

Only in the 1990s was he drawn to stories that more roundly confronted the ethical conscience of independent idealism and the supposed necessity and sure damage of the lone gunman mentality.

Such conflicts are now his intellectual balancing act between commercial viability and humane storyline, and it is quite a seesaw in an era of self-indulgent bang-bang epics, though his methods here bring down his insights. On the one hand he embraces the high tech protracted battles and on the other seeks those moments where Kyle’s humanity is vanishing before our eyes as he quietly explodes body after body from long range.  

Cooper and Sienna Miller in 'American Sniper.'
Some of the devices don’t ring true – especially on the domestic front despite some personable acting by Sienna Miller as Kyle’s wife. There is an inconsequence to her articulate confrontations with him. Then there is how she is listening safe statewide on field phones to what is happening to him on the distant battlefield. Somewhat more convincing as a plot fabrication  is when a maternity nurse pops a blood pressure kit on him to reveal that sitting quietly he is way too  tense, a neat way of contrasting his exterior calm with his interior tension. 

It all feels like screenwriter concoctions of convenience requiring Cooper mainly to 
humanize the character’s self-deception, confident at home and with his buddies but letting the deterioration peek out bit by bit. In fact, the actor’s sense of character progression justifies the film. When he stays focused and calm on the battlefield, as if the decision to stop a child with a grenade is not weighing on him and was simply logical, we see otherwise. The ethical dilemma is ticking underneath.

When he tells a doubting fellow SEAL that he would rather fight the  terrorists in Mosul than in San Diego, we later see the enemy come to San Diego in the form of maimed veterans that neither Kyle nor the community at large are ready to accept.

Some other storytelling devices are clearly more token than convincing, as if the film doesn’t want to offend its young male audience with too much moralizing. While there is no “Battle Cry” World War II moment, while the firefights are sometimes so blurred that we can’t tell one side from the other (which I take as a moral comment), and we are shown Kyle caring about some innocent Iraqis, there is still a one-sided vision of implacable enemies streaming over the hill no matter what the American soldiers mean to nobly do.

This protection of US stalwartness in the face of evil may have had some original validity, but it becomes the film’s most laughable conceit, setting up a super-villain Syrian sniper on the other side to serve as Kyle’s nemesis and prime target.

It is a clumsy throwback to Eastwood’s days of western strutting, the ultimate good guy versus the bad guy escapism.  This extended plot device almost destroys better aspects of the film, including  how Kyle is slow or even angry to recognized the maimed veterans as the new breed of helpless victims his America-first thinking requires him to protect. 

I am hearing from many women, who make up the majority of today’s movie audience, that this is hardly a date film and certainly not an exercise in masculine strutting they want to see. The Miller character is a rather typical Hollywood mix of sexual flirtation and moral compass, seen through chauvinistic eyes.  But put aside the appeal to men of the combat mode, Eastwood is at least giving notice to the ambiguity – we may think we need these warriors, but when we see the price they pay and that our values pay, do we? So all should appreciate the attempt to ask questions.

Moreover, there’s the hunkdom appeal of Cooper, though I would rather moviegoers recognized his disciplined skilled acting.  While respecting Eastwood’s interest in the moral dilemma, and feeling he leaned too heavily on the comic book Syrian sniper and other shortcuts, when he turns toward the humanity of the characters as the doorway to understanding, be glad that Cooper is there.

Other notable end of year reviews:  Whiplash, Wild, Into the Woods, Unbroken, Boyhood,  Theory of Relativity, Birdman,  Imitation Game.

Film and drama critic for The Milwaukee Journal for decades, Dominique Paul Noth began his journalism career in the 1960s, first as international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then an editor at the Green Sheet, then combining criticism with stints as arts editor and later senior features editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combined Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and to serve as the first online news producer. He left voluntarily to run online seminars and write about Internet journalism and online newspapers, then served from 2002 to 2013 as editor of the Milwaukee Labor Press and its online portal, milwaukeelabor.org.  The culture-focused Doms Domain has a political counterpart, domsdomainpolitics, and he also reviews theater for Urban Milwaukee.